Archive | teaching

in defense of poetry, with apologies to Percy Shelley

I spent about six weeks this semester teaching and talking about poetry with my students.  Almost to a person, they started the term with “eh…I don’t much like poetry,” and “I don’t get poetry,” and “what the hell is poetry even about, anyway?”

All reasonable questions, I guess, for students who have grown up in a world where they almost never encounter poetry, other than in song lyrics or spoken-word events.  Poetry, they tell me, is intimidating; it doesn’t make sense; it’s too complicated; it’s weird.

Full disclosure: I spent most of high school and all of college writing poetry. Whenever I’d get too philosophical during those late-conversations about Life that seem only to happen between the ages of 18-22 and only between the hours of 12-4AM, my friends would say “oh go write a poem,” as a way to get me to be quiet.

I kept writing poetry even after college—-poetry workshops, sending things off to magazines, the whole deal—-and stopped only when I got to graduate school, which pretty much thrashed every creative bone out of my body. Took me decades to get the graduate school’s pinched-face editor in my head to stop saying things like “maudlin!” “derivative!” and “you call that writing?”

All of which is to say is that although I knew my students wouldn’t be excited about spending all this time reading poetry, I was looking forward to spending time with words, nothing but words.  Someone said once that poetry is language calling attention to itself, and while I think poetry can be much more than that, that idea isn’t a bad place to start.  Poetry gives us a chance to think about how words feel in our mouths and sound out loud; poetry’s language works by compressing, distilling, wringing an experience or idea to a kind of essence that works on us in ways that we might not ever really understand.

We roamed through Seamus Heaney’s “Digging,” in which a gun transforms to a spade transforms to a pen in the hand of the poet; we looked at John Donne’s “Batter my heart three person’d god,” in which faith becomes a kind of ravishment, a physical experience; we talked about the bleak beauty in some of Anna Akhmatova’s lines; and marveled at the incandescent anger of Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.”  The students put aside “it’s weird,” or perhaps, actually, they began to embrace the weird; they let themselves roam around inside the poems and not insist on absolute meanings.  And I got, perhaps, a little carried away by the whole thing and put a sign on my office door that said “Today’s Poem,” and then every day, I would post a new poem — a famous poem, an obscure poem, prose poem, haiku, nabati lyric — all kinds of poems.

One of the poems I put on my door is Ezra Pound’s imagist poem about being in the French Metro, called, fittingly, “In a station of the metro.”  It reads like this:

The apparition       of these faces       in the crowd:
Petals      on a wet, black    bough.

And yes, that’s what it looks like on the page, and yes, that’s the entire poem.  And yes, it’s a little weird.

But you know? Think about being in a crowded subway station, on a rainy day. Think about the blur of faces. Now think about the blur of wet, say, cherry blossoms on a dark branch.

See?

In his essay “Defence of Poetry,” Percy Bysshe Shelley (every time I say his name in class someone giggles, and I totally get it), said “Reason is the enumeration of qualities already known; imagination is the perception of the value of those qualities, both separately and as a whole. Reason respects the differences, and imagination the similitudes of things. Reason is to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.”

I guess the student who scrawled this comment at the bottom of the Pound poem wanted to live in a world governed entirely by reason. That strikes me as incredibly limited, and not a little bit sad.

IMG_7485Doesn’t make sense. Quit wasting paper.

Continue Reading · on November 13, 2013 in Books, Education, language, NaBloPoMo, reading, teaching, writing

in which teaching becomes a metaphor. or something.

Next week I am teaching Virginia Woolf’s brilliant and amazing essay A Room of One’s Own.

So on my list of “to do” for the weekend is this note, jotted down while I was in a meeting: “find a way in to Room.”

Indeed.

Of course, what I meant (I think) was that I need to figure out how to help my students tackle this long essay.

But the metaphor?

Woolf says that if each woman could have her own income (which Woolf pegs at being about 500 pounds a year) and a room with a lock on its door (one assumes locking from the inside, not outside, which is to say locking out and not being locked in), then it would be possible to develop “the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think.”

Wouldn’t that be nice?

It is a room of independence, I guess you could say; and Woolf was smart enough to understand that without freedom from economic worry, it’s very difficult to feel the freedom to create.

In this house that we’re renting, there’s a little room tucked in between the entrance to the garage and the laundry room. On the floor plan of the house, this room is designated “maid’s room.” Lots and lots of people have live-in help in Abu Dhabi, in part because if you hire someone full time, you have to sponsor the person’s visa–and in order to get a visa, you have to have a place to live.  We don’t have any live-in help (I don’t want any witnesses), so I have adopted that room as my office.

My god. It’s another room-based metaphor: my “room of my own” is…the maid’s room.

And that’s the challenge, isn’t it? In between driving and errands and laundry and housekeeping, in between earning money and making lists and going to meetings, somewhere in all that, a person should find the courage to write exactly what she thinks.

image source

 

 

Continue Reading · on October 5, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, Education, Feminism, Gender, me my own personal self, teaching, writing

Define “best and brightest”

ivy.jpg

I wrote this post back in the halycon days of Obama’s first presidency and well before “lean in” became a meme and not an athletic command.  I like to think that even with newborn Caleb strapped to my chest, I did a pretty good job at my job, but then I again, I was half-asleep most of the time, so I might not be the best judge. Outlaw Mama runs a great Friday series about women and work, which you might check out if either of those categories–a woman or a worker–pertains to you.

“Critics worry about academic insularity,” reads the title of an article in Sunday’s Washington Post online edition. It’s not quite a backlash – yet – but almost every day, it seems, there’s another little niggling worry posted somewhere about all the Ivy Leaguers making up Obama’s new administration.Sometimes it’s even one of the lead stories for the day.

Seems Barack has appointed people who went to really elite schools, like Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Cambridge, Oxford; he’s also appointed others who couldn’t quite cut the mustard and had to make do with such slacker schools as University of Chicago, University of Virginia, and MIT.

Frank Rich on Sunday sounded one such note of worry, pointing out that the phrase “best and brightest,” which David Halberstam used as the title of his book about Viet Nam, was intended ironically: a group of incredibly well-educated men (more about that in a minute) got us stuck in Viet Nam and couldn’t get us out. Other pundits on both the left and the right have sounded equally worried about what will happen when all these ivy-covered lefties find themselves in that most ivory of Ivory Towers, the White House.

The Post article comments that Obama’s team “lacks diversity in one regard: they are almost exclusively products of the nation’s elite institutions and generally share a more intellectual outlook than is often the norm in government.”

Dontcha just hate it when government is run by people who think? Of course, one needs to go back quite some time to remember when this was the case (and one wonders how to tag the Clinton administration – intellectual isn’t precisely the word that springs first to mind, alas).

As I read Rich’s column yesterday morning and then bounced over to the Post article, I couldn’t help but think about Governor Ed Rendell’s comment on Janet Napolitano’s selection for Homeland Security chief: he said that she was the perfect pick because she’s “got no life. No family. Perfect…” (See this link to The Christian Science Monitor for more about how Rendell unintentionally put his foot in his mouth about the precise conflict faced by women who want to have successful careers).

So Napolitano is perfect because she’s got no family and Larry Summers isn’t perfect because of all that Harvard in his background. Hmmm.

And yet, when I read the profiles of all the potential appointees that The New York Times has been running, I notice two things: I notice that many of these people are – gulp – my age or – double gulp – younger. And I notice that very few of the women on the list have children, while many of the men have several. I pointed this out to Husband, who said, basically “duh.”

Translated, this “duh” means what we all know but hate to say: to get to the spot on the career ladder where you can be chosen for a cabinet position is a tough climb under the best of circumstances – and those circumstances are rarely improved by having to lock yourself in your office every few hours so that you can use your Medela pump in some semblance of privacy (if, that is, you have an office and aren’t forced to stuff yourself and your pump into a stall in the woman’s bathroom and hope that no one mistakes that peculiar Medelian wheeze for you having a horrible asthma attack).  It’s hard to fast-track yourself if this is what you feel like:

mom_and_nursing_pup_600.jpgI know, I know, it’s better than it was, the times-they-are-a-changing, sure, okay. I know that song; I can even hum a few bars. But four years ago, right before Caleb was born, I was appointed to be the director of a program at the small college where I teach. This new position would reduce my teaching load from four courses a semester to two and I was thrilled – teaching four courses each term was killing me. (For the record: I am not a member of the academic elite. Academic, yes. But elite? The elite don’t teach four undergraduate classes a semester – one, maybe, but four? No freakin’ way). I was afraid to go on maternity leave because if someone else were appointed as director in the interim, I might never get the job back (no one wants to teach four courses a semester).

So I took a leave from teaching but not from administration and came to work with Caleb slung across my chest in one of those baby slings. And yes I locked the office door several times a day to nurse him. Students who came in to talk to me that semester were frequently startled by the sight of Caleb’s small hand emerging from the sling or by the sound of a deliciously timed baby fart, one of those long, rippling farts that you know is going to result in a diaper filled with what looks a lot like scrambled eggs.

Frankly? That’s about all I remember of the semester – Caleb wiggling and farting as I tried to help students choose their courses, review their transcripts, or talk about why they were flunking calculus.

I could get away with functioning in what was basically fugue state because – well, in part because I am not a member of the academic elite, and because college students are themselves functioning in a kind of fugue state. I’ve got no clue how more high-powered women juggle newborn hell with high-pressure jobs. Lots and lots and lots of child-care, I guess. And maybe a smidge or two of valium.

But here’s my point: what if we stopped worrying that all these Obama appointees are too intelleckshul (and let’s also notice, shall we, that most of this conversation about “too smart” centers on the men Obama’s picked to handle the exchequer). What if we started worrying with equal frequency – above the fold, as they say in newspaper-land – about why it’s so hard for women with families to climb that ladder? After all, an ivy-covered wall is still…a wall.

Continue Reading · on August 25, 2013 in family, Feminism, Kids, Parenting, Politics, teaching

Teaching Keeps You Young. Except When It Makes You Feel Old.

Here’s the thing about being a professor: your students stay roughly the same from year to year. Eighteen is eighteen is eighteen, more or less. And the same with the twenty-year olds, and with the about-to-graduates.  Yes, the particularities of dreams and ambitions, talents and strengths, vary from student to student, but in a general way, youth is youth.

Yes. Youth is youth, and every term, you sail further and further from those shores.  This term I realized – with something akin to horror – that I am in many instances probably older than my students’ parents.

Teaching: the only profession where you literally watch your past recede in front of your very eyes.  And, at the same time, it’s one of the only jobs (perhaps besides writer for The Daily Show) where what you do all day can keep you young. Or young-ish, anyway.  Watching students get excited about ideas can be contagious; their enthusiasm and interest and curiosity are better company than thinking omigod I’m almost fifty or how will we pay for college or will I ever write that damn novel or…well, you get the picture.  And because these students aren’t my actual kids, I don’t have to fret (much) about whether they’re eating right, or sleeping enough (or around), or what they’ll do for the summer now that their old bedroom has been turned into a home yoga studio.

No matter how the semester has gone—whether it’s been one of those magic semesters where everything clicks, or a semester where getting through the syllabus has felt like the Bataan death march—I am always sad to see the students leave on that last day. They have been mine, in a manner of speaking, for three months, and while sometimes they take another course with me or stop by to say hello, more often they do not.  It’s as if I got to see only a part of the movie, read only part of the story: I get one semester’s worth of their lives and then they go off and finish the story elsewhere.

When I was a younger teacher, I don’t think I felt such a sense of nostalgia at the end of the term, or maybe I did but I’ve forgotten that I did because see above on aging.

Wait–what were we talking about?

Oh, right. Teaching as a way of staying young. Or being reminded of being old that you’re no longer as young as you were.

Here’s a reminder from a student’s essay this term – the student was talking about a reference in Alif the Unseen to a line from a “Star Wars’ movie (the first movie–the only one that counts, in my book–from 1977):  “This line is from the first “Star Wars” movie, in 1977. Although Kenobi’s Jedi trick has been part of pop culture for decades, it seems too much to expect us to know a line from a 70s movie.” *

Right. The 1970s. I guess that was ancient history, wasn’t it.

Like, totally thirty-six years ago.

Just gonna get my walker out of the closet and shuffle over here to the Betamax video projector and watch a little telly. Got some reruns of “Laverne & Shirley” I’ve been meaning to catch up on.

 these are not the droids you are looking for…

*The student, by the way, wrote a wonderful paper (even if it did make me feel old as the hills, or Betamax) and got an A.

 

Continue Reading · on June 3, 2013 in Education, Kids, NYUAD, teaching

in which people who have never ever been to abu dhabi say a whole lot of stuff about abu dhabi (and my job)

I live in Abu Dhabi. When I tell people that, I usually have to do a few follow-up comments. No, Abu Dhabi isn’t where they filmed that “Mission Impossible” movie, that’s Dubai; yes, it’s the setting for the dreadful “Sex and the City 2” movie, but that movie was actually filmed in Morocco; no, I don’t have to wear a veil; yes, I can move freely around the city; yes, I wear short sleeves and even (gasp) a two-piece bathing suit on the beach.

True, no one is going to mistake Abu Dhabi for Rio anytime soon, but at the same time, what I’ve noticed in conversations with family and friends–well-meaning people, educated people, progressive-minded people–is the way that “the Middle East” gets kind of blurred into one big mushy picture involving veiled women, angry bearded men, sand, and oil wells. I wonder sometimes how on earth people are going to get clearer visions of one another, given the ease with which stereotypes and assumptions govern our thinking.

These entrenched and outdated habits of mind have been echoing pretty loudly in my life over the past few weeks, because a group of faculty at NYU in New York have staged a vote of no-confidence about John Sexton, who has been president of NYU for the last ten years. The group has been primarily angry about a plan to expand the university’s campus in Greenwich Village and while I’m not a fan of that plan, I do recognize that the university needs classroom space, office space, and housing–all of which, in NYC, are very much at a premium. (And I’m not going to say anything about the fact that some of the most outspoken critics of the expansion plan are the first to complain that they might have to –horrors– share an office, or teach in a classroom that’s not within walking distance of their office, or teach at an inconvenient time. Nope. Not saying that at all.)

This same group of faculty complains about NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus, for a variety of reasons, although interestingly, none of the loudest voices has been to the Middle East, the Gulf, or Abu Dhabi. Some of them have, I assume eaten falafel or hummus, or the occasional pita bread, so I suppose that qualifies them for commentary, yes? What surprises me about the commentary that comes from these critics is that they make unsubstantiated claims of the sort that, were their students to make these statements in an essay, the professors would be asking for proof, evidence, support.

So in this piece from The New York Observer, or this piece in “The Daily Beast,” or this one from The Atlantic (really, one expects better from The Atlantic), or this one from The Guardian we are told that, among other things, women have no more rights than animals, that the government here is both quixotic and despotic, that cameras are forbidden on the streets, and that the place is like Siberia. One professor, in The Guardian article, even says that “faculty had no say over whether to be a global university.” Because why on earth would you want to interact with people from, you know, anywhere else other than where you’re from?  Especially at a university?  These articles (in which the same voices pop up with dismaying regularity) offer up every stereotype there is about this region and seem insistent about the idea that until a government or society is perfect, “we” should not enter into dialogue with “them.”

Which, of course, is going to make it really, really difficult for anyone who lives anywhere to talk to anyone.  And isn’t that just a great way to make sure the world goes to hell in a handbag? Let’s all just withdraw into our own little worlds and not talk to anyone whose ideas or practices conflict with our own even a jot.

Anyway, in an effort to get even a breath of reality into this discussion, I wrote this piece, about the pleasures and challenges of teaching here.  I’ve included the longer version of the piece below (so if any of my students are reading this post, you can see that I know about the pain of being edited down to the bone).

When this piece first ran, it looked like this: Screen shot 2013-03-14 at 2.32.14 PMVery nice, right?

Yeah. Except that cityscape?

It’s a photograph of Dubai.

***

Followup: the no-confidence vote passed: 298 voted “no confidence,” out of 682 eligible voting faculty. An overwhelming mandate? Hmmm

Followup: the photo was re-edited, something about a copy editor asleep at the switch. Here’s the longer version of the piece:

 “I was accepted at Oxford,” said the student sitting next to me. We were at the NYU Abu Dhabi “Marhaba Dinner” for the incoming freshmen class—a group of about a hundred and fifty—whose admission to NYUAD marked the college’s second year of existence.  I’d come to Abu Dhabi with my family about six weeks before this dinner, in order to join the NYUAD literature faculty, and this evening marked my first encounter with the members of what has been billed as “the world’s honors college.” “My mum wanted me to stay close to home,” my dinner companion continued, “but I came here because I wanted…all this,” and he waved his hand towards the other students.

I looked around the room: boys in gleaming white kanduras talked with girls in skirts and heels; near the dessert buffet, two boys in jackets and ties debated the relative merits of chocolate mousse and baklava with several girls wearing abayas and headscarves. The hundred and fifty students in the room came from eighty-six countries and spoke eighty-nine different languages; the cavernous dining room echoed with excited voices speaking a hodge-podge of English and everything else. At my table, in addition to the boy from England, were students from Argentina, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, mainland China, the United States, Russia, India, and the Philippines. When a young man at the table said “I don’t want to just study international relations, I want to do international relations,” all the students nodded: with the earnestness of the young and talented, they’re sure that at some point they will change the world.

As a group of NYU faculty in New York prepare to hold a vote of no-confidence over John Sexton’s leadership of the university, NYUAD has emerged, along with Sexton’s ambitious Greenwich Village expansion plan, as primary whipping boys. And while I am not a big fan of the expansion plan, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that teaching at NYUAD has restored my hope that maybe—just maybe—the generation represented by the students here will be able to prevent the world from drowning in a miasma of sectarian violence and corporate malfeasance.

NYUAD has been accused of being “deep in the Sultan’s pockets” (although neither Abu Dhabi nor the UAE has a sultan); or we are colluding with the UAE military-industrial complex; or we are tacitly endorsing a repressive regime. One well-known faculty member in New York has been quoted in several different articles saying that Abu Dhabi is a police state, where Jews are legislated against and cameras are not allowed on the streets.  My Jewish friends here—one of whom compulsively documents almost every hour of her life with the camera on her iPhone—found these statements surprising, to say the least.

Further, if these critics are to be believed, all of us who teach here have abandoned academic integrity in favor of a fat paycheck and warm weather. Critics of NYUAD seem unwilling or unable to imagine that perhaps faculty are here because of the deep intellectual pleasure of teaching these students and because of the excitement—and challenge—that comes with creating a new institution. We are not missionaries preaching western-style enlightenment (as a faculty member in New York described the Abu Dhabi faculty mandate), and while some of us may feel challenged at times by living in a society that conceptualizes individual freedoms differently than does, say, the United States, I challenge you to find a country anywhere that offers its inhabitants perfect, unfettered freedoms. NYUAD’s faculty have come to Abu Dhabi to help re-imagine the liberal arts college for the twenty-first century, particularly in terms of how students encounter the humanities—and, thus, worlds other than their own.

One of the charges leveled against NYUAD is that it’s “buying” smart students with generous financial aid packages, but again, I would challenge these critics to find a student at any institution who can afford to ignore the price tag of her diploma. It’s worth remembering that many countries provide outstanding college educations at no or low cost to their citizens, and that even in the US, top schools provide generous aid packages to attract promising students who would otherwise have no hope of affording full tuition, room, and board. If NYUAD wants to attract the most exciting students, it needs to make sure it’s playing on the same field.

Contrary to popular opinion, the majority of NYUAD students are not from wealthy backgrounds and have not traveled widely outside their home countries; we have students here who have never been in a co-ed class, never been in a Muslim country, never been out of a Muslim country, never been in a classroom where they could voice their opinion. My first semester teaching at NYUAD, I asked a student—a girl from Egypt—what she thought about Art Spiegelman creating a graphic novel (Maus) to tell a story about a Holocaust survivor and his son. The student said she didn’t understand the question—but her confusion had nothing to do with Spiegelman’s book. She couldn’t believe that I wanted her opinion; she was sure that there was some kind of trick answer. When she trusted that I wanted to hear what she had to say, the first thing she said was “no teacher has ever asked me what I thought.”  Then she went on to connect Spiegelman’s “comic book” with some of the political art she noticed in Cairo during Arab Spring.

What is developing at NYUAD might be described by sociologist Bryan Turner as “cosmopolitan virtue”: a sense of responsibility that leads to “care for other cultures, ironic distance from one’s own traditions, concern for the integrity of cultures in a hybrid world, [and] openness to cross-cultural criticism.” Irony here is not the hipster-ish stance of “whatever,” which so many college students claim as their birthright.  Turner’s irony requires an “intellectual distance from one’s own national or local culture,” which makes sense, considering that with distance frequently comes a fresh perspective.

When female Emirati students can assert that feminism is a part of their identity as Emirati women, when US students become friends with students who grew up in Palestine, when the student from Mumbai plays cricket with classmates from Pakistan—aren’t these the conversations and connections we want to foster? Shouldn’t the 21st century college be encouraging us—students and faculty alike—to live outside our comfort zones, to find connections across differences instead of trying to eradicate difference altogether? Shouldn’t we be moving towards a more cosmopolitan worldview, one that sees difference as an opportunity rather than a threat?  Critics of NYUAD (many of whom have never been to the Middle East, much less to Abu Dhabi) talk about our enterprise in voices full of certainty, as if they know the right way to think about education, learning, and global cultures. What we are all learning at NYUAD, however, is that no single culture, no single perspective offers all the answers.

When answers do emerge, they come from collaboration and reflection, as happened last year when the four-person student team from NYUAD won the prestigious Hult Challenge, which charges students to work with an NGO on solutions to global social problems. The NYUAD students worked with SolarAid to develop a sustainable plan to bring solar power to African villages. What was the high-tech strategy that won the million-dollar prize?

Build a community network.

The team had traveled to villages in Ethiopia and Kenya to explain their original, detail-heavy plan, and discovered, as they talked with people, that the original plan wouldn’t work. The villagers said that in order to give up their old kerosene lamps for the new solar-powered lights, they needed a reliable local network of tech support and maintenance. These discussions led the team to devise a viable community support system—and won them first prize.

Are the Hult students incredibly talented? Absolutely. Had they learned the skills necessary for collaboration and reflection at NYUAD? Perhaps. And perhaps also their own lived experience helped them understand how to connect across difference: the four students come from India, Pakistan, China, and Taiwan.  Nationalism would suggest that they be bitter enemies; cosmopolitanism allowed them to harness their intellectual energy for the social good.

While I’m not saying that NYUAD is a success because its students are prize-winners, I am suggesting that, at a moment when the world’s problems seem intractable because dialogue and conversation have fallen prey to aggression and self-interest, the existence of a place where people from wildly divergent backgrounds—indeed, in some cases from enemy countries—can come together on common ground for shared intellectual exploration and discovery—well, that seems like something that we should be making every effort to preserve, protect, and nurture.

Say what you will about John Sexton’s plans to expand NYU’s campus in Manhattan, the campus in Abu Dhabi offers an example of what it means to explore the world of the mind in intimate conversations and creative action. People have asked why Abu Dhabi, instead of, say, London, Berlin, Beijing. The answer, like most answers, is complicated, but rests at least in part in the fact that everyone here, even the students whose families may live a few blocks away, is working with new frames of reference, be they geographical, political, linguistic, intellectual, or spiritual. At NYUAD we are looking at the world with new frames of reference—asking different questions, finding different answers, exploring new collaborations.  We aren’t just studying international relations, or doing international relations. We are, all of us, living international relations.

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Continue Reading · on March 16, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, Education, expat, Feminism, NYC, NYUAD, Politics, ranting, teaching, UAE

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